Playwright Bertolt Brecht, a European immigrant to the U.S., poses in this undated handout photo released to the media on Monday, Oct. 6, 2008. ( Peter Rosen Productions via Bloomberg News/VIA BLOOMBERG NEWS)
A Literary Life

By Stephen Parker

Bloomsbury. 689 pp. $39.99

Twenty years ago, John Fuegi created an uproar with the scathing “Brecht & Co.,” which asserted with formidable documentation that one of the 20th century’s most revered playwrights was at best only the co-creator of such famous works as “The Threepenny Opera” and “Mother Courage.” Fuegi’s book was unnecessarily vitriolic in tone, but groundbreaking, notable for its penetrating insight into theater’s essentially collective nature — and the author’s loathing for Bertolt Brecht.

British scholar Stephen Parker’s new biography replaces the monster of “Brecht & Co.” with a recognizable human. Focusing on Brecht’s personal struggles, Parker locates the source of his driving ambition in his youth in provincial Augsburg, Germany. Born in 1898 to a Catholic father and Protestant mother, he was a sickly child, suffering from severe heart and kidney ailments that debilitated him throughout his life. “Initially, writing was a refuge, but in adolescence it became a means of asserting himself,” Parker says. “Through poetry and song he transformed his idiosyncratic talent into magnetic attraction.”

The front cover to "Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life" by Stephen Parker (Bloomsbury/Bloomsbury)

Although he managed to evade direct military service, Brecht was bitterly disenchanted by the senseless bloodbath of World War I. Determined to destroy tired, sentimental prewar cultural conventions, he began to write plays and developed his distinctive directorial style in Munich. By the time he relocated to Berlin in 1924, he was a leading member of the German avant-garde. He began a lifelong partnership with actress Helene Weigel; they married in 1929.

The unabashedly polygamous Brecht found two other enduring professional and sexual partners in Berlin: Elisabeth Hauptmann and Margarete Steffin. Later joined by Ruth Berlau, these women wrote significant portions of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” “The Good Person of Szechwan” and virtually every other work in the post-1924 Brecht canon. Parker accepts Fuegi’s revelations about their crucial role in Brecht’s oeuvre but does his best to minimize it as “female support.” He patronizingly describes Hauptmann as “an outstanding literary secretary” and claims that she “always acknowledged that Brecht was the presiding genius.” Parker clearly shares this opinion, which leads to a frustrating disinclination to explore the nature of these collaborations beyond such passing comments as “dramatic composition was an eminently social activity for Brecht.”

You wouldn’t know it from Parker’s explications of the plays. He analyzes them as products of Brecht’s preoccupations, in particular a struggle to gain control of his overwhelming emotions by cultivating intellectual clarity and ironic distance. When he began reading Marx in 1926, Brecht already had concluded that established dramatic forms couldn’t meaningfully address modern reality; now he found an intellectual system that made sense of his revulsion at the way the world worked and provided a framework for his ideas about theater. He wanted to deny audiences sentimental identification with his characters and force them to think about the social issues his plays raised; he called this revolutionary approach Epic Theatre.

Brecht never joined the Communist Party, but he remained loyal to it for the rest of his life. A vocal anti-fascist, he was on a train out of Germany the day after Hitler declared a state of emergency in 1933. For the next 15 years, he was a stateless refugee, fleeing across continents one step ahead of the Nazis. Parker makes palpable the desperation of an artist who had lost his country, his theater and an audience in his native language. Placed in the context of global upheaval, Brecht’s behavior isn’t admirable, but it’s understandable. Even the ghastly decision to leave the mortally ill Steffin in a Moscow tuberculosis sanitarium makes grim sense; nine days after Brecht and his entourage boarded a ship for Los Angeles in 1941, the United States stopped issuing visas for anyone with family in Germany.

Some of Brecht’s greatest plays were written in exile, but they would not be performed in his homeland until the 1950s. Parker again provides context for Brecht’s often distasteful actions in the postwar years. His fervent desire to return to Europe led to a servile 1947 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities; when Soviet-controlled East Berlin promised him his own theater and financial support, he hedged his bets by obtaining an Austrian passport and maintaining a Swiss bank account. The productions of the Berliner Ensemble gave him the international reputation he had always craved and placed Epic Theatre at the forefront of world drama.

A wily survivor uninterested in moral purity, Brecht was willing to compromise politically but not artistically. After worker demonstrations were brutally suppressed in 1953, he combined a fulsome declaration of support for the East German government with veiled threats to emigrate to stave off attempts to make the Ensemble toe the socialist realist cultural line. Declining health made him less active, but his plays were being performed all over the world by the time of his death in 1956.

Whatever percentage of those plays he wrote, Parker reminds us that it was Brecht whose ideas shaped their creation, Brecht who schemed and fought for their productions, Brecht who galvanized modern theater with a radically new performance style. He was deeply flawed man and an enormously important cultural figure. He fully merits the nuanced portrait he receives in “Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life.”

Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America.”